Eight months into my first relationship and fifteen months before it ended, my boyfriend and I found ourselves at his friend’s book club discussing James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. It’s the story of (self-loathing, American) David’s brief, doomed affair with (affectionate, outgoing, Italian) Giovanni.
I spent the night praising the novella and saying things like,
We all still have at least a little internalised homophobia. Don’t we?
What I did not say, though I couldn’t stop thinking it, was,
This is why I cannot love your funny, brilliant friend here and also why I can never leave him — because he is Giovanni and I am David.
John and I met through a dating site. By the end of our first date, we had sussed each other’s flaws: he was trying too hard to paint me a ‘rags-to-riches’ story; I was waiting for him to impress me before giving him my attention. He had my attention from the second he spotted that.
We moved unbelievably fast. It was utterly alien to me, even at 26. Happy couples didn’t feature in my childhood. Like car journeys and fizzy drinks, I didn’t realise these were features of ‘normal’ childhoods until later. Dad skipped town in Year Zero and I never got used to the idea of my mum and stepdads as couples. ‘Couples’ implies a rough equality: they were more like visitors.
None of my schoolfriends had partners either. So, like most lonely young people, I got my ideas about love from stories, most of which, feeding off the drama, would accentuate the conflict and loneliness that apparently plagued every romance worth mentioning.
One half of my ideas about love came from songs, films, TV. A litany of exquisite sadness: Heavenly Creatures, Leon, There Is a Light That Never Goes Out…
The rest, weirdly, came from newspapers I pored over at weekends. Couples in domestic scenes, tranquil double-page spreads, Sunday supplement gloss. These led me to believe love was a destination not a journey. Love was meant to be static and orderly, which meant never having to worry about anything. How you got to that point was unclear.
By immersing myself in aspirational imagery — shiny photographs of couples sat at different ends of large, spacious living rooms — the idea of relationships, space and distance merged in my mind. My adolescent self craved a wide, open yet still enclosed space. My pursuit of such a space persisted into adulthood. I carried into my twenties an idea of love as something doomed, violent, chaotic and frightening, which needed solitude, distance and silence to survive.
Our first six months disappeared in the spaces between Instagram pictures: we travelled, we shared friends and family, and then, suddenly, we were living together. I’d never thought myself capable of sharing so much of my life with anyone. Before our first holiday, I thought we’d go mad from spending so much time together. (My friend’s sage advice: “Go for a walk.”)
As with us, so with David and Giovanni: ‘In the beginning our life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and fear but they did not work themselves to the surface’ at first.
Our difficulties began shortly after I moved in. Ironically, living together gave us the freedom to spend time apart from one another — it was a new option. I colonised the small upstairs study for writing and made it my den (books all over the floor, black-and-white postcards of authors judging me from the mirror above my desk). The study was directly above the living room, where he spent most of his time indoors. Since he could hear me clearly upstairs, I became paranoid that if I didn’t sound like I was continually working, he would think I was avoiding him. Then, after a while, the thought became a genuine distraction.
Like countless other small problems, it didn’t matter in itself but was enlarged by steady accumulation and by lack of communication. Why didn’t I speak? I was afraid — I assumed the worst. Above all, I didn’t want to wake from the dream of our first six months and find out I was the cold and unreachable person I’d thought I was, ill-equipped to give and receive love. It was easier to pretend such problems didn’t exist. To stay dreaming.
Around this time, I read Giovanni’s Room and felt a familiarity equal parts frightening and reassuring. Frightening because identifying with David entailed seeing myself as a man only capable of love from a distance — who is made claustrophobic by intimacy. But reassuring, too, because I wasn’t alone. It didn’t make me mad to feel antagonistic towards a caring, sensitive lover who kept trying to reach me; it merely made me a type.
I suspect I’m not uncommon in this regard. I imagine that many readers bring provisional, time-bound difficulties to their reading and, finding their problems embodied in relatable characters, come to see these as permanent, essential traits of their own character.
For this reason, Baldwin’s prose soothed most where it lacerated. David’s projects the revulsion he feels about his ‘dirty body’ onto Giovanni’s sensuality. His need to escape Giovanni’s shabby room is his need to evade intimacy. Intimacy frightens him because it forces him to encounter his own body, which does not comply with his masculine ideals.
Yet David stays with Giovanni and wilfully ignores these contradictions, to the point of convincing himself (unsuccessfully) that Giovanni doesn’t love him either. This imagined consensus that their relationship is unsustainable allows David to absolve himself of guilt. It lets him ignore the uncomfortable truth that, while they may love each another, they will never be able to give each another what they need.
Before he leaves for good, Giovanni tells him, ‘I have never reached you. You have never really been here. I do not think you have ever lied to me but I know that you have never told me the truth.’ I don’t think I kept reading the first time I came across these lines, for I was doing just that.
Living together, we lost the capacity for intimacy. That was the worst of it. It became a regular discussion topic. Six months before we separated, we drew up lists of what we both needed to change. One of my commitments was to ‘be consistent in words and deeds’. His points included ‘daily intimacy’, ‘touch me without having to be prompted’, and ‘say you love me without having to be prompted.’ I became so tense and nervous around John that I couldn’t help laughing whenever he touched me. I’d apologise, saying that I couldn’t help it — which was neither lying nor telling the truth.
For a long time, we needed chemicals to induce intimacy (or something like it). This started by accident and became habitual. It was a way of bypassing the mind and conjoining two bodies. On these nights, we’d boast to one another about our sexual conquests and fantasies, to distract ourselves from all the sex we weren’t having. But the mind always catches up in the end, and we’d be back where we started or, more often, someplace worse.
Invariably, we’d venture too far in this one-upmanship, this felt need to prove sexual prowess, leaving the other wounded and insecure. In the light of day, we’d find the gulf dividing us wider than ever. What remained was the terror of realising you can hurt someone you love accidentally, similar to David’s feeling when he wakes in a boy’s bed for the first time:
‘It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. […] My own body suddenly seemed gross and crushing and the desire which was rising in me seemed monstrous. But, above all, I was afraid.’
When David confides to Giovanni that ‘most of the time [he] made love only with the body’, he replies, ‘that can make one very lonely.’ It’s much worse to have two people doing this, especially when each is stumbling blindly in search of a connection.
Reading Giovanni’s Room crystallised doubts and confusions, which, taken individually, might have been communicable, into one unspeakable fact: I was David and he was Giovanni. To have said it aloud would have made it real. I wasn’t ready to condemn myself to be a David for the rest of my life — our relationship, however troubled, offered at least a comforting illusion that I was someone else.
I was afraid to see him in the pain that runs through the book’s final chapters, especially when Giovanni asks the unanswerable question — how long have you known?
‘Since when…have you so hated the room? Since when? Since yesterday, since always?’
Yet, like David, I knew we couldn’t last, and that by staying with him I was committing ‘the longer and lesser and more perpetual murder’ which is to leave a failed relationship on life support. Like David, ‘helplessly, at the very bottom of my heart’, there was something that ‘resisted him with all my strength.’
If this relationship failed, I read in these pages, it would prove there was something broken inside of me that cannot connect — not just with John but with any man. In other words, the failure would lie with me and would follow me.
As I wrote that, I knew it to be untrue. Back in April, I met a boy I wasn’t looking for, who gave me a love I hadn’t known I needed, along with more joy than I’d had reason to hope for. On our third date, I was searching for a book to lend him. Naturally, I sought a book that would convey something of myself or something I had noticed about him — ideally both.
I chose Giovanni’s Room, which I re-read first. This time, guided by a firmer grasp of the thread running through Baldwin’s work, I heard a voice pleading for a better idea of love. It issues from one of the novella’s lesser characters, the older man, Jacques, who leads a lonely existence in the Parisian gay scene, but who tells David:
‘Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? … If you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty – they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. […] You play it safe long enough…and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever – like me.’
This time, Baldwin’s novella has taught me to be gentler to myself. My first relationship failed because we weren’t right for one another. It lasted as long as it did because we didn’t demand what we needed to be happy and feel loved. Most of the time we were together we shouldn’t have been yet we loved each other enough that we’d go to extreme lengths to avoid consciously hurting each other.
Those few lines of Jacques’ pulled me out of a downward spiral of self-loathing, which began spinning the day I moved out. I’ve accepted that my greatest mistake was self-deception, which is just another way of saying mistrust of one’s instincts. I’ve learned that the only heart you can read and be true to is your own; ass Baldwin put it, ‘you have to go the way your blood beats.’ He’s shown me that the only way forwards, and upwards, is to draw closer to ‘this dirty world, this dirty body’; not to retreat but to be present.
Re-reading Giovanni’s Room illuminated conclusions I’d reached by myself: that there is no such thing as half-love or love that addresses the mind and body as things apart. It is simply love or it is something else, and love is often dirty and messy and demands a total giving of the self. It may never reach the stable resting point portrayed in Sunday supplements. It may require, as Baldwin wrote elsewhere, an acceptance of the perpetual risk of humiliation.
I now see the novella for what it is: a riposte to introspection, not an invitation to indulge in it. Baldwin didn’t present us with mirrors to drown in. He calls on us to trust in ourselves as ‘touchstones for reality’ — though not to put the touchstone before reality. Otherwise, you risk thinking of yourself as pure and apart from the rest of the world, leaving you ‘trapped in your own dirty body, forever.’
I once thought Giovanni’s Room was telling me that I wasn’t ready for love, when it’s real message is that nobody is ever ready for love. If you know it’s love, you must seize it with both hands and give it everything you have. And if you know it isn’t, know that it will come, if only you’ll say ‘Yes’ with a capital ‘Y.’
‘We do not choose our friends and lovers any more than we choose our parents: Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.’